Ichigo’s earliest memories of his mother were quiet. Her presence next to him, making his world bright, as they stretched and bowed to the sun and pretended to be dogs and eagles and dolphins. Years later, his muscles remembered those early yoga sessions and adapted them to meet new challenges, but at the time, he knew only sunlight and his mom’s voice and funny twisty poses that made him laugh.
When he was three, he followed along as she went to dance class, watching her and copying her movements with his short arms and clumsy feet, happy in his corner, moving like his mom and watching them both in the mirror.
As the months went by, his feet and his hands moved more smoothly. The music spoke to him, in his mom’s voice. Her image behind him showed him the steps, and he was happy.
The first time Ichigo heard his mom and dad argue, he was five.
“He’s got to learn, Masaki!”
“He’s a child! He’s only little, Isshin. I’m not going to put him through what I went through!”
“You will if you want him to survive.”
“You don’t know that!”
“Of course I do! And so do you! You can’t baby him, you’ll just end up making him weak!”
“I want him to have a life, damn it!”
“Then make sure he can keep it!”
He didn’t know what it meant, and he didn’t remember it for a long time, until the nightmares came, and he wracked his mind for any memory of her voice, even the painful ones. He remembered how sad his dad sounded, and that his mom was crying.
Somehow he knew it was his fault. That afternoon, he’d been practicing a little dance his mom had been working on. Just a couple step combinations, an arch, a little sweep and spin.
His father had seen him. Stopped in his tracks and stared at him. Then came up to him slowly. Rubbed his hand over his face, and sighed. Lifted his hand, like he was going to smack him.
His dad got the strangest expression on his face, like he’d tasted something bad, then he’d turned around and left, without saying a word. It made Ichigo shiver. Made him forget his steps.
Made him want to hide.
A week later, his mom brought him to the dojo for the first time. He was surrounded by kids no older than himself, all trying to beat each other up. It was a nightmare.
He liked the sensei. He liked the kata, it was almost like dancing.
He hated the sparring.
He didn’t like most of the other kids in the class, either. They were all so intent on hitting each other. He felt little and stupid and intimidated, and he hated it.
After the first month he tried to quit. His mom shook her head.
“Give it a try, Ichigo-kun. You can be really good at this, if you try.”
He stared up at her. “I don’t want to, mom. I want to dance.”
She knelt down in front of him and cupped his face in her hands. “Sometimes we have to learn things because they will help us later on, honey. You can dance, too. But you have to learn this. You have to learn to fight. To protect. That’s what your name means, number one protector. Think about your little sisters. You want to keep them safe, right?”
“Yeah!” he cried, then shrugged. “But why do I got to protect them? Isn’t that dad’s job?”
She laughed a little, and kissed his forehead. “One day you’ll be all grown up, just like your dad. And when that time comes, you’ll need to know how to protect the people you love.”
“Okay,” he grudgingly agreed. “But I still wanna dance.”
“Yes, sweetheart. We’ll still dance.”
Most of the kids were jerks. They made fun of his hair. They laughed when he cried, but darnit, getting punched in the nose or kicked in the belly hurt.
Only one didn’t laugh. She came up to him after yet another disastrous spar, and said, “You’re holding your hands wrong. Here,” she reached out and curled his fingers, “like this.”
She stepped back a little bit and watched him, then waved at him, encouraging him to try. He gave a half-hearted punch. She laughed, but it wasn’t mean.
“You gotta swing for real, put your strength in it,” she said, then swung at him.
He blocked, and for once, it almost worked.
“Better!” she said, and she sounded happy. “I’m Tatsuki. Who’re you?”
“Ichigo,” he mumbled, and she beamed at him.
“Fight with me, Ichigo!” she practically sang at him.
“I don’t wanna fight,” he sighed.
Her fists dropped and she looked at him, puzzled. “Then why are you here?”
He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “’Cause one day I gotta protect my sisters, and I can’t do that if the only thing I can do is dance.”
She cocked her head to one side. “You like to dance?”
He smiled at her for the first time and she blinked, shook her head a little, then smiled back at him.
“Well, then,” she said, moving her feet into position, “just think of this as a dance. Only with kicking and stuff.”
He thought about it a moment, then squared off to meet her. “You and me. Dance partners!”
He didn’t hate the dojo quite so much after that.
By the time he was six, there were fewer dance classes. He and his mom still greeted the sun with yoga, and on the mornings when his dad was busy at the clinic, they would slip away and dance. She never told him not to talk to his dad about the dance studio. She didn’t need to. He was young, but he wasn’t stupid.
When they turned eight, Ichigo gave Tatsuki gloves. They were foam padded, made of black cloth, just the right size for her fists. When she opened them, she gave him a quick hug. Then she started to cry.
It frightened him. He’d never seen Tatsuki cry, even when she lost fights. Not that she lost many fights. She was pretty good, better than him, better than everybody else their age, and getting better all the time. She felt about karate the way he felt about dance. So he thought the gloves would make her happy.
“Sorry,” he ventured.
She shook her head. “Not you,” she got out, then sniffed really hard and scrubbed at her eyes. “It’s my mother.”
“Is she okay?” He inched closer, in case Tatsuki needed to lean on him or something. He didn’t remember ever seeing her mom around the dojo, but he knew if anything happened to his mom, he’d be broken. She looked a little broken, now.
“She’s fine.” Another sniff, another scrub, and a few more tears escaped.
Ichigo was confused, now. If her mom was okay, why was she crying, and on her birthday, too? Tatsuki heaved a big sigh and plopped on the grass under a tree. She hugged the gloves to her chest and sniffed again. He sat down next to her, waiting for her to speak. Eventually, she sighed again.
“She doesn’t want me to take karate lessons anymore,” she finally said in a very quiet voice. “Says it’s not ladylike. Wants me to be a lady.” She snorted, and he had to agree. Tatsuki was great, but she wasn’t exactly delicate or flowery or all those girly things. “Dad won’t argue with her. Says it’s up to a mother to know what’s best for her daughter.”
Her voice was hard as she finished, and she sounded like she was quoting the words. She stared down at the gloves, her lip quivering as she tried not to cry again. Ichigo sat next to his best friend and wondered how he could help. She was a lot like him, only in reverse. Her mom wanted her to give up the fighting she loved, stop going to the dojo, act like something she wasn’t. His dad wanted him to give up the dancing he loved, stop going to the studio, act like something he wasn’t. It was too bad he wasn’t Tatsuki and she wasn’t Ichigo.
He stopped. Stared at her. Nodded.
It just might work.
“I’ll cover for you,” he said.
She jumped a little and looked at him. “What do you mean?”
He grinned. She blinked and shook her head a little like she did every time he smiled at her, then smiled back a little shakily.
“I want to dance, you want to fight,” he told her. “I know the studio, you know the dojo. You be my dance partner, I’ll be your sparring partner. If your mom asks, you’re helping me out, and if my dad asks, I’m helping you out. Then you can fight, and I can dance, and everything will be okay!”
Her smile got a whole lot brighter, and she tackled him in a hug that knocked all the breath out of him.
And for almost two years, everything was perfect.
Ichigo turned out to be a much better fighter than he ever expected, from spending so many hours in the dojo with Tatsuki. He also excelled at the studio, beginning classes in Western modern dance, as well as traditional dances including Nihon Buyō and Bugaku. He loved the precision of the steps and the expression in the movements, the leaps that felt like flying, even the masks that made him into someone else, a great hero or warrior, for as long as the dance lasted. He learned control, grace, interpretation, timing. It made him strong.
It was also a part of his life that was just for him and his mom. The twins were too little to care, and if his dad knew about it, he never mentioned it. At least his mom and dad didn’t fight about it anymore, or if they did, it wasn’t anywhere Ichigo could hear them.
A few days before his tenth birthday, everything came crashing down.
His mom regularly came to the dojo to walk him home, the same as Tatsuki’s mom came to the studio to pick her up. In his case, it was because his mom liked to spend time with him. In her case, her mom was checking to make sure she actually went.
That day, he’d finally managed to do more than block. He’d landed a hit on Tatsuki, then been so shocked he dropped his guard and she knocked him on his bottom. Then they’d both laughed. He didn’t tell his mom about the part where he got knocked down, though, just the part where he’d finally managed to hit Tatsuki.
It had been a perfect day, even with the rain. His mom had laughed with him, and held his hand, and he’d been happy.
Then he saw what he thought was a girl on the banks of the river, and he’d thought she was going to fall in, and he’d run to try to help her.
Only it wasn’t a girl. It was a monster. It fooled him.
It killed his mom.
It took the light from his world.
He remembered that afternoon with crystal clarity for the rest of his life.
The next day he saw a little girl ghost, sitting on the corner, crying for her mother.
He pretended she wasn’t there, and walked right past her.
He was done with ghosts.
A few days after his mom’s funeral, his dad looked at him over the breakfast table.
“When are you going back to the dojo, Ichigo?”
He looked up into pained dark eyes and couldn’t say a word.
How was he going to manage this? His mom knew what he was doing, covering for Tatsuki so she could fight, as she was covering for him so he could dance. He knew his dad wouldn’t let him get away with that. His dad wouldn’t let him dance.
Something deep inside clenched at the thought of losing his last link to his mom. Of losing what, he was just beginning to understand, was central to his soul.
“Tatsuki,” he finally got out, then took a deep breath and plunged back in. “I’ll be going back to the dojo on Monday, dad. I also promised Tatsuki I’d help her at the studio.”
“You don’t have time for messing around with that dance stuff now, Ichigo. You need to get strong.”
So you don’t get anyone else killed, he heard, even if his dad didn’t say it out loud. “She’s my sparring partner. I’m her dance partner.” When his dad raised a hand and wagged a finger at him, Ichigo yelled, “I PROMISED!”
His dad looked at him for a long time, then nodded once. “A man is only as good as his word.”
Ichigo could work with that.
The next morning, his dad yelled, “Goooood morning, my son!” with a flying kick that knocked him out of bed.
If he hadn’t spent the past five years learning how to bend his body in dance, that would have connected and really hurt. As it was, he came up underneath the foot that would have smacked his face and grabbed the ankle, dropping his entire weight down on it and sending his dad sailing over his head to face-plant in the wall. Then he rolled out of the way of the falling body and came to his feet, heading for the bathroom. His dad was sobbing about his prodigy son in an overly-dramatic fashion behind him.
He locked himself in the bathroom and shook for ten minutes before he could get his legs to stop wobbling.
It was only the beginning.
Not only did his dad try to kick him out of bed every morning, he started ambushing him when he came in the door from school, when he came down the stairs for dinner, over the breakfast table, from behind the sofa when he was watching TV… it took very little time for Ichigo to become a paranoid nervous wreck. The only time he could relax was when he could lose himself in dance, or, ironically, in the ring with Tatsuki. At least then he knew to expect the feet and fists flying his way.
This was his new reality. He would survive it. He would not let it break him.
The next day he saw a monster. It was a lot smaller than the one that killed his mom, but it was also eating a ghost.
He wondered if he should be scared.
Instead, he was furious.
He picked up a rock and threw it as hard as he could, smacking the monster in the face. It looked up, confused, the ghost’s legs dangling from its mouth. Ichigo let out an inarticulate yell and charged, beating it on the head as hard as he could, kicking and even head-butting it.
Its face cracked, and it dissolved into particles, along with what was left of the ghost.
He went over to the bushes and threw up.
Now, now he was terrified.
He’d rushed in again. This time, it would have been him that died. The ghost was already dead, it wasn’t like he had to save it. He thought of the monster.
The fury swept through him again.
Okay, he had to be careful. When he got mad, he stopped thinking, and that got people – mom – killed. Carefully, he walked away from the park toward home, blanking his mind. Letting go of his fear.
Banking his anger.
The next time he saw a monster eating a ghost, the monster was five times as big as he was.
He walked away.
And banked his anger again.
A few days after he’d dissolved the monster, a roving gang of thugs made the mistake of picking on him for his hair color.
The anger erupted.
He didn’t remember the fight. He left their bodies groaning in an alley, watching the cuts in his knuckles fade away to nothing.
He won, and he felt completely empty.
Three months later, right before New Year’s, his dad confronted him over the boxes he kept his dance costumes and props in. He came home from school and, instead of getting attacked physically, he walked into his bedroom to find his belongings scattered all over the floor.
One of his fans was broken.
His dad started yelling at him about ‘sissy crap’ and ‘trash’.
Ichigo kicked him in the balls, then when he folded in half, punched him in the mouth.
It didn’t hurt the crazy bastard, but it moved him out of the way far enough for Ichigo to get behind him and kick him as hard as he could in the butt, knocking him out of his room.
He then slammed the door and dragged his chair over in front of it, propping it under the doorknob.
As he gathered up the remains of the delicate wooden cutwork fan, he cried for the first time since he’d lost his mom. If he hadn’t cried, he would have picked up the jagged remains of that fan, and stabbed it through his dad’s eye. Instead, he carefully wrapped it in a scrap of paper and placed it in the bottom of the box, gathering up the rest of his scattered belongings and putting them neatly in an athletic bag.
He didn’t make a sound.
The next day, he left for school two hours before his normal time. No one else was up yet. He carried the bag over his shoulder and slogged his way to the dojo. Tatsuki was there, working on her strikes. She stopped and looked at him, eyes wide.
“You okay, Ichigo?”
“Dad found my dance stuff. Br-“ his voice cracked, and he cleared his throat before he could continue. “He broke some stuff. I hate to ask, but do you think you could store this at your house?”
She nodded, her eyes hard. She was used to parents who had no clue who she was, or what was important to her, and who didn’t care. He was in her shoes, now, and she would help him, as he’d helped her.
“Sure. And here.” She kicked her duffel bag over closer to him. “You put my stuff at your house, okay? Then you’ll have fight stuff, and I’ll have dance stuff. Anybody starts poking around again, they’ll think we’re doing what they want.”
Dark blue eyes met miserable brown in complete understanding.
After that, she stored her gloves and headgear and gi at his house, and he stored his fans and hakama and kimonos at her house.
Isshin watched from the back of the crowd as Ichigo moved across the stage. The boy had talent, there was no doubt about it. His hands manipulated the fan like it was part of him. He could practically feel the heat of the day, smell the salt of the ocean, hear the cry of the birds overhead, in the languid movements as his son brought the song to vivid life. It was breathtaking.
It was heartbreaking.
He didn’t need a dreamer, he needed a warrior.
His son never knew he was there.
A week later he was seated in the front row, center, as Ichigo placed third in his age class at the regional karate championships. He was a skilled fighter, his inherent talent shining through despite his utter lack of killing instinct.
He had the moves. He didn’t have the heart.
His friend Tatsuki took first place among the girls. Now she was a warrior.
Unfortunately she was only a human. Too bad she wasn’t his son.
He didn’t know what to do. Ichigo was doing extremely well in his situational awareness and engagement skills. Even at thirteen, he could block most of Isshin’s blows, and he was never taken by surprise.
But it was always defensive. He fought just enough to escape.
Never enough to win.
It was not enough.
Damnit. If the kid had to dance, and it looked like he had to dance like he had to breathe… couldn’t he at least use a fucking sword?
Fighting bullies became a regular chore on the way home from school. The other kids knew he was a dancer, and that, added to the red hair, made him a target. They would corner him every chance they got, until they learned better.
Because Tatsuki was his best friend, and together, they kicked the asses of any bullies who got in their way.
Stretching was like meditation. Dance was even more like it, only directed outward. There were times, alone in the studio after all the classes were over, that Ichigo honestly felt like he was in another world.
Then he fell into one.
He’d finished his workout and was cooling off, just listening to music, when he felt himself shift. It wasn’t a disorienting feeling, more like something settling in his muscle memory, like when he’d worked on a complicated step for a while and it finally clicked.
When he opened his eyes, he wasn’t in the studio anymore. He was sitting cross-legged on the window pane of a skyscraper that was parallel to the ground.
Even his clothes had changed. Instead of his cropped sweatpants and tee shirt, he was in a midori green hakamashita paired with dark brown umanori with a strange pattern of coriander and fennel flowers woven throughout in gold thread, and a dark yellow obi. The only things that hadn’t changed were his feet were still bare and his tiger fan was still there, tucked in his obi.
He had to remember this combination. Maybe the studio tailor could make it up for him. Not only was it perfect for Buyō but he really liked the colors.
Then a sword came out of nowhere and tried to cut off his head.
Years of dodging his dad came in handy, and he ducked, tucked, rolled and kicked out. There was the whisper of contact as his foot barely missed striking flesh. He came to his feet, half-crouched and ready to defend.
An old guy in sunglasses and a cloak, blowing in a wind Ichigo didn’t feel, held a katana in one hand and stared down at him from a pole set in the building about ten feet away.
“What the hell?” he asked blankly.
Instantly, the old man was once more in his face, swinging. Ichigo fell into the mind space he found instinctively when he sensed danger, ever since the monster killed his mom. He dodged, wove around his opponent, looking for an opening, then swung.
When did he get a sword, and holy mercy, but how was he even LIFTING the massive cleaver clamped in his right fist?
Then he had no time for questions, internal or otherwise, as he was in a fight for his life.
Fury, buried for years, bubbled to the surface.
His mother had died for him. No spooky bastard was going to kill him for no damned reason.
Movements he’d been learning for sword dance for years flowed through him, returning to their original literal purpose from their stylized, formal presentation. He balanced with his off hand and put his entire body into his fight, as he’d been taught by everyone from Tatsuki to his dad to his senseis to his mom to his dance instructors, putting everything he was in everything he did.
It was a deadly and beautiful dance.
He had the vague thought that it was fun, and he should make time to take kendō lessons. Still, his basic skill seemed to flourish and expand as he fought, and he fought hard.
He didn’t kill the murderous bastard, didn’t come close to winning, but he fought his opponent to a draw. Straining against the katana, snarling up into the face of the taller man, he barked, “Who are you and why are you trying to kill me?!”
The cold expression on the man’s face didn’t so much as twitch, though he did disengage and draw back. Ichigo kept his cleaver and his guard up, distrustfully.
After a moment that felt about a year long, the stranger nodded slightly, and his sword disappeared. At the same moment, so did Ichigo’s cleaver. The surprise nearly sent him on his nose, but he recovered quickly, keeping his eyes on the threat. The man gave him the slightest bow.
“Not useless, at all,” he said.
Ichigo flinched, then glared.
The man suddenly flickered, then reappeared back on the pole. “My name is Zangetsu,” he said calmly. “Return soon.”
Ichigo woke up.
He started, flailing his arms and knocking his head against the wall mirror, then looked around wildly. He was sitting, cross-legged, on a mat on the floor of the studio, leaning against the wall. He had no idea how he’d gotten there.
He would have thought the whole thing was just a weird nightmare brought on by fatigue and low blood sugar… were it not for the thin cuts on his arms and shins that healed even as he watched. He lifted his shirt and saw that, yes, the slice across his torso was also there, and also healing at an insane rate.
A full-body shudder wracked him.
He had no idea what was going on, but it could physically hurt him. He didn’t know how he’d gotten into that sideways city, but he had to go back. Had to get answers.
The last cut closed, leaving no trace on his skin that it had ever been there.
Starting that night, and several times a week in the months and years that followed, when he slept, he dreamed. When he dreamed, he fell into the sideways city, and over time, he got better at protecting himself.
He didn’t get very many answers, but the few he did, he put to work.
The city was his soul. Zangetsu was his sword. The monsters were Hollows.
A few days after he turned fourteen, he saw a monster attacking some kids in the park not far from an elementary school. He called on his inner training, did as Zangetsu had instructed him, and pulled ice blue power traced in red to his hands. His cleaver materialized.
He cut the monster in half.
The kids ran away during the fight. No one was there to see the monster dissolve away but him. When the fight was over, he released his cleaver, and it disappeared back into his soul.
Between school – homework, dance rehearsal – classes – performance, karate classes – competition, kendō classes, and spending time with his sisters, Ichigo was a very busy boy.
The first time Tatsuki was with him when a monster attacked, she couldn’t see it. She saw his sword, and her mouth fell open and she froze in her tracks. That nearly got her killed.
“Duck!” he screamed as he threw himself over her, putting his body between her and the attacking monstrosity. He snarled and hissed as he strained, finally kicking it in the throat then swinging around, slicing its head in half from the chin to the back of its skull. It dissolved, he let his sword disappear, then he trudged over to where she was still crouched, still staring.
“Blink, Tats,” he said wearily.
She punched him in the thigh. It was a sign of how shocked she was that she didn’t knock him over.
The conversation that followed left them both depressed. For the first time, he told someone the entire truth of how his mom died, and shared with her everything he knew about the world of Hollows and ghosts, as well as his own strange soul that gave him a sword and taught him how to kill monsters.
“You can’t do this alone.”
“I have been. What else can I do?”
“I’m your back-up, idiot. Always have been. Always will be.”
“You can’t even see them!”
She looked at him like he really was stupid. “Then pretend I’m wearing a blindfold.”
The next time, he did, and it worked. She watched his back, and he killed monsters. One more area where they covered for each other.
Within two months, she could see the Hollows, too.
She also started noticing that her fists had a strange yellow glow around them when she punched the monsters, and her blows were much heavier than they should be. She asked Ichigo, and they tossed theories around until he finally shrugged.
“Maybe that’s your version of a sword.”
Whatever it was, it helped. That was good enough for both of them.
His last year in middle school, a new kid transferred in. He was big, broad and strong, a head taller than everyone else. He was also mixed blood, with darkly tanned skin and foreign features, rounded eyes and full lips.
Ichigo thought he was beautiful, but he didn’t say anything. He had morons trying to beat him up for enough reasons. He didn’t need to crush on the new guy and get punched for that, too.
Unfortunately for the new guy, he became the new target. While this gave Ichigo a break, and disappointed Tatsuki who really liked beating the crap out of bullies, it also prompted Ichigo to keep a close eye on what the thugs were up to.
Because the big guy didn’t fight back. Ever. And that was a good way to get beaten to death.
His fears were well-founded, as one day a couple weeks after the new guy arrived, he saw the usual gang of morons ambush the him down by the river. The big guy held them off for a little while, but they wore him down, as he didn’t hit back even once. Ichigo sighed at the stupidity on both sides of the fight as the thugs tied the guy to a chair and tried to figure out whether to keep hitting him or drown him.
He couldn’t take it anymore.
He looked over at Tatsuki, practically quivering in anticipation beside him, and sighed. She grinned at him. It had more teeth than should be humanly possible in it. He gave her a half-smile, and they dove in.
There were more bullies than usual, but it didn’t take them long at all to knock them out. Tatsuki pulled a phone off one of them and called an ambulance, just in case, while Ichigo started untying the new kid.
“Hi. I’m Ichigo. What’s your name?”
Shocked green eyes stared up at him through wavy brown hair. “Sado Yasutora,” he whispered.
Ichigo could barely hear him. Yikes. Big, pacifist, soft-spoken, and obviously an outsider. Was he trying to get killed? He shook his head. The guy was like a puppy, a really big Rottweiler puppy who didn’t know how to bark or bite. He hauled him up off the chair and dragged him over to Tatsuki.
“Tats, this is Chad.” Or something like that. The newly-dubbed Chad didn’t protest, so that was okay. “Chad, this is Tatsuki.”
She grinned up at him in a friendly fashion that would have been less threatening if she hadn’t had blood on her teeth. “Hi, Chad!”
He made a little noise that might have been a greeting.
“Let’s get out of here before the cops or the ambulances come, yeah?”
Ichigo kept his grip on Chad all the way over to the park, partly to help him walk as he was a little shaky, but mainly because he liked the feeling of warm skin and solid muscle under his hand. A little voice in the back of his head was chanting, “gay, gay, gay” but he ignored it. It’s not like he cared. He was already a weirdo to everyone who didn’t take the time to get to know him, and he didn’t care what other people thought, anyway.
When they got far enough away from the carnage of the fight, he tugged Chad over to a handy tree and collapsed to sit on the grass, dragging his new friend with him. Tatsuki settled beside him, looking very amused.
“Shut up,” he told her, and she snickered.
She DID know him. But she also didn’t care, so that was just fine.
“Why didn’t you fight back?” he asked Chad.
The story that followed made his heart hurt. Chad had been a trouble-maker, acting out his anger and grief at the loss of his parents by beating up anything and anyone he could get his fists on, until his grandfather – his ‘abuelo’ – took him in hand. Taught him that violence wasn’t the answer, that it was the duty of the strong to look after the weak, that he shouldn’t impose his strength on others.
Which was great, of course, unless those others were trying to beat the snot out of him.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in a philosophical argument between the fighter – Tatsuki – and the pacifist – Chad – with input on both sides of the argument from the protector – Ichigo. In the end it was decided… Chad would fight for them, they would fight for Chad. That turned out, in practice, to mean that Chad would fight for Ichigo, Ichigo would fight for Chad, and Tatsuki would fight every chance she got for any reason whatsoever.
Being his friend, thankfully, she waited until it was just the two of them before she teased the hell out of him for his instant crush.
The next year they started high school. Tatsuki was teasing him less about Chad, partly because the crush settled into something deeper, and partly because she’d met a girl called Orihime and found herself in exactly the same position. Just as Ichigo was Chad’s protector, Tatsuki became Orihime’s protector, and it was a good thing, because there was a predatory lesbian in their class who would not stop groping the girl.
Tatsuki spent a lot of time smacking that bitch down.
Ichigo also picked up a stalker.
A very quiet kid with black hair and glasses had started showing up along with the Hollows. Ichigo didn’t notice at first, until Chad tilted his head to point him out – Chad didn’t talk much, but Ichigo was very good at reading his body language.
Probably from so much time spent staring at his body.
Anyway, once he saw him the first time, Ichigo realized the kid was always there. He was even in their class. He was the top student of the year – how did he find time to study with all the stalking? Although Ichigo was the sixth ranked, and he was ridiculously busy, so he wasn’t one to talk.
Then the kid started showing up at the dance studio.
Finally, he couldn’t take the suspense. After class one night, he slung his towel around his neck, shouldered his bag, and walked directly over to where his stalker waited in the shadows. It’s a good thing the kid didn’t run, because Ichigo was pretty wrung out from working on some new choreography, and wasn’t in the mood to go chasing anyone.
Well, maybe Chad. But Chad wouldn’t run. Maybe.
Shaking away his distraction, he stopped in front of the kid and said, “Hi. I’m Ichigo. Why are you following me?”
The kid spluttered a little, then poked his glasses up his face and squared his shoulders. “I have noticed you fighting Hollows, and while I don’t recognize your weapon, your movements are very similar to Quincy moves. Are you a Quincy?”
Ichigo was surprised at how deep the kid’s voice was. “How can you see Hollows? What’s a quince? And what’s your name?”
Dark blue eyes examined him through those glasses like he was a bug under a microscope. “A quince is a small deciduous tree that bears a pome fruit, similar to a pear. Genus Cydonia, family Rosaceae.”
Ichigo’s eyes widened. Did this guy have a link to Wiki in his brain? Or had he swallowed an encyclopedia?
“A Quincy is a spiritually-aware person who can see souls, who fights Hollows, and who can manipulate spiritual pressure, reishi, for that purpose.”
He took a moment to parse that. “I might be one, I don’t know. What is your name?” the last was said slowly, after all, if he had to ask so many times, maybe the kid wasn’t as bright as his grades would suggest.
That got him a glare. “Uryū Ishida.”
“Nice to meet you, Ishida. How do I tell if I’m a Quincy?”
The evil, anticipatory smile he got for that made him back up a step.
Although the training he managed to stuff into Tuesday evenings and Sunday afternoons was more than worth putting up with Ishida’s occasional creepiness.
Within a couple months, he could literally walk on air. Ishida called it Hirenkyaku. It made cutting open the skulls of tall Hollows so much easier.
Not being one to keep life-saving techniques to himself, he brought Chad and Tatsuki in. They weren’t Quincies, as it turned out, but they had their own unusual manifestations. Chad’s arms gained armor, like Tatsuki’s fists gained fire, and they could both jump incredibly high. They discovered, by accident as they were failing to learn Hirenkyaku, that they could also walk or run on air. Little flashes of light appeared under their feet, and with time and practice they could keep up with Ichigo and Ishida.
The Hollows never knew what hit them.
Not that fighting monsters was all he did. As he’d gotten older, and his limbs had gotten longer, he’d delved further into modern dance and been given larger, more complex roles in traditional dance. He was performing with dancers up to twice his age, and holding his own. He even had positive performance reviews in the newspaper, touting his ‘adept touch’ and ‘deep emotive presence’ along with his ‘graceful strength’ and ‘unique interpretation.’
He waited for his dad to say something. Knew the old man had seen them.
Not a word.
Of course, he didn’t expect anything different, he told himself. He wasn’t disappointed. He didn’t expect his dad to ever accept that he was a dancer by choice, and a fighter by necessity.
He stopped competing in karate bouts, though he always went to cheer for Tatsuki.
His dad didn’t mention that, either.
Life went on, packed to the brim as it was.
He made a couple new friends, or at least acquaintances, a soft-spoken boy with shadows in his eyes named Mizuiro, and a loud-mouth with unexpected depths named Keigo. Ichigo sat next to Chad at lunch one day, a couple months into the school term, and looked around at his small circle of friends. Ishida sat on his other side, a little removed, but still present. Tatsuki sat opposite of him with Orihime beside her. Mizuiro sat between Keigo and Orihime, texting, probably to his girlfriend, while Keigo told some long-winded story about sand crabs at the beach, complete with wild arm-waving and sound effects.
He was still insanely busy, with dance and kendō and karate, with heaps of homework in new subjects, with his sisters and his friends, with his dad still trying to catch him off guard – and failing, with visiting Zangetsu most nights to fight and to talk, and with monster-slaying with Tatsuki, Ishida, and now Chad, who had begun to see the Hollows, but he was also happy.
It snuck up on him.
He looked up in the clouds, and for a moment, thought he saw his mom’s face.
She was smiling at him.
“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices that, if I then had waked after long sleep, will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming, the clouds methought would open and show riches ready to drop upon me that, when I waked, I cried to dream again.”
He was reading The Tempest when he felt it.
A Hollow was heading his way, very quickly. It was nearly midnight, and he had no time to get help. But he’d made contingency plans, and put them into place with Ishida’s help weeks before.
Dropping his book, Ichigo ran for his sisters’ room. He shut the door and knelt in the center of the room, between the two beds. The girls were starting to stir, but it didn’t take long to trigger the spell chains embedded in the walls, by the window, over the door, keyed to a center point he slammed his palm down into, as he channeled reishi as fast and as hard as he could.
It burned a little moving under his skin, but in seconds, the entire room was encapsulated in a blue glow threaded with black and red. Ichigo let go of the seal and fell back on his butt, breathing heavily, sweat running down the sides of his face.
“Ichi-nii?” Yuzu asked hesitantly.
“What on earth was that?” Karin was a little freaked out.
He held out his arms and they flew to him, grabbing him in a dual-bear hug. He bent his head over theirs and chanted, too softly for them to hear his words, layering further protection over them all, rendering them invisible to any Hollow energy. It was an ancient spell, used by Quincy mothers to protect their children when the parents had to leave them to fight.
As the twins clung to him and shivered under the force of spiritual pressure they didn’t understand, he watched through their window as a short woman in a black kimono and hakama nearly lost in a sword fight with a monster that was at least two stories tall. In the end, the monster fell to her sword, even as she crumpled from pain and blood loss.
As he carefully unraveled the protective spells warding the room, making a note to give Ishida something really nice as a thank you for teaching him how to save his sisters’ lives, he watched as a strange man in a hat and striped robe, wearing geta of all things and carrying a cane, came out of the shadows and hefted the wounded girl over his shoulder. The man’s head tilted, and Ichigo had the sensation of ants crawling over his skin as, unbelievably, he felt the man look at him through the window.
Then he was gone, blended with the shadows, and Ichigo was left to explain what, exactly, that had been.
The next morning over breakfast, Yuzu and Karin were a little less innocent, knowing now that there were monsters out there, but reassured, that their big brother and his friends were there to protect them. Ichigo was tired, but relieved, that they’d gotten through the crisis unscathed. His dad? Spent all morning bitching about the truck that hit the side of the clinic and left a big hole in it.
Ichigo didn’t tell him anything different. He literally couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a meaningful conversation, about anything, with his father.
Sōsuke Aizen was a genius the likes of which the Seireitei had never seen. He was a master manipulator who built layers of complexities into his plans so no matter what variable should impact the equation, he was prepared. If an experiment proved particularly fruitful, he was poised to take advantage of it. If one failed, he was equally prepared to cut it loose and turn to any number of other options waiting in the wings.
Ichigo Kurosaki had him just the tiniest bit stumped.
He’d taken the ‘wait and see’ approach to the entire thing, with Masaki and White and the whole Quincy element leaving some areas open to play out in a variety of ways. The intervention of Isshin Shiba was quite useful, leading as it did to removing a thorn from his side in breaking the power of the Shiba clan, and setting up the possibilities inherent in their offspring.
So far, it had been interesting, though not directly applicable to any of his schemes.
He had put the pieces in play, and Urahara had done exactly as expected… as had the little Kuchiki… but Ichigo did not. Instead of acting the mindless hero role, rushing out and joining the fight, leading to his introduction to the Shinigami world via Rukia Kuchiki that would eventually lead him into Aizen’s own hands… he’d hidden like a turtle in a Quincy shell with his little sisters.
Ah, well. Perhaps something interesting would develop later on that front. He’d test the boy regularly, see if anything developed with him and his odd little nakama.
For now… yes. A slightly more direct approach.
“Gin. I have a mission for you.”
He would have the Hōgyoku. His plans for Hueco Mundo would proceed on schedule. Rukia wouldn’t be missed, except for a few unimportant friends and her brother. It would only need a few more blows and the head of the Kuchiki clan would break, as well, leaving Aizen one step closer to a power vacuum in the Seireitei that he could exploit.
When one plan collapses, another folds in to take its place.
Lieutenant Rukia Kuchiki disappeared while on patrol in the Living World. Follow-up investigation by captains of the 13th and 6th divisions could not determine her whereabouts, although strong traces of Hollow energy were found at the last known coordinates taken from the global positioning system of her soul phone, indicating she was killed and consumed by Hollows.
Captain Byakuya Kuchiki of the 6th division went into seclusion upon confirmation of her death. He returned to his duties a broken man.
Captain Shunsui Kyōraku of the 8th kept Captain Jūshirō Ukitake of the 13th drunk for two days, the maximum Captain Unohana of the 4th would allow, considering his illness. After that, they spent a lot of time silently drinking tea together.
Lieutenant Abarai of the 6th disappeared into the Rukongai for a week. When he returned, he was not disciplined. He struggled to complete his duties in the absence of his captain, and the struggle continued even after his captain returned to duty, as his captain was so distracted he may as well have stayed home.
Exiled Captain Kisuke Urahara conducted an independent search for both the missing lieutenant and his missing gigai with its singular addition. He found only the shredded gigai.
The first term of his second year in high school was over and it was summer vacation before another major attack happened.
Ichigo had just returned from his second time performing at the Hydrangea Festival at Fujinomori Shrine in Kyoto – he told his dad it was a class trip. His dad didn’t question it. Tatsuki and Orihime came up with the twins, meeting Chad and Ishida on the train. It was the first time any of them other than Tatsuki had ever seen him perform Buyō at such an important event. He did well, he thought. He’d been given the opportunity to solo for the past year, something he honestly hadn’t expected given his age and, well, unusual appearance, but his instructors were very happy with him. He was their rising star, and he reflected well on the studio. They were really supportive.
So were his friends. Orihime wouldn’t stop bubbling, and Ishida kept muttering to himself and staring at his costume. He had a suspicion he would be getting offered some personal tailoring pretty soon – his Quincy friend was talented with a needle.
Chad just said “Beautiful,” very softly.
After they got back to Karakura and everyone split off from the train, Chad tugged him to a quiet corner outside the train station.
Made his day absolutely perfect.
They were holding hands when they joined the girls, headed back to the clinic. Tatsuki gave him a teasing grin and he knew he was in for it later, but that was okay.
Everything was okay.
Then Chad kissed him again before he left, and everything was a heck of a lot better than okay.
For once, his dad didn’t try to punch him when he wandered in the door, grinning like a maniac. He was too busy sobbing on his knees in front of the wall poster of mom, all about how his son was all grown up and going to get laid and not going to give him any grandbabies and he couldn’t do anything because his son’s boyfriend was big and scary.
Ichigo punted him into the wall on the way by, still grinning.
He was coming home from the dojo the next day, planning to meet Chad and Tatsuki, and maybe Ishida if he could make it, at the park. They had a major project coming up, and it was too nice a day to spend it at either Ishida or Chad’s tiny apartment. Tatsuki’s mom and his dad made their own homes not an option, and they were honestly sick of the library.
Just before he got in sight of the park, he could feel it. He dropped his bag and hit the air, Hirenkyaku speeding him above the crowd so swiftly he was a blur, his cleaver coming to his hand as he arrived at the scene.
The sheer weight of the reiatsu in the atmosphere sent him tumbling. He kept hold of his sword and came up en garde, eyes sweeping over the bodies surrounding the crater in the middle of the grass. Some of the trees were blown to splinters. At least a dozen men, women and children lay dead, scattered around the crater.
Tatsuki was fighting a tall, slender man who looked like he was half-asleep. He also looked like he’d rather be somewhere else, slapping away her fists but not actually hitting her back. She was gasping and her strikes were wild, something he’d never seen. Orihime lie still, unbreathing, behind her. Next to her, draped over her as if to protect her or pull her out of the way, was Keigo. He wasn’t breathing, either.
A shorter man with green streaks on his face and a horn sticking out of his head had a hand outstretched toward Chad, shooting out small balls of blue fire. Chad was beating them out, trying to protect himself and Mizuiro, who was crumpled behind him, trying weakly to crawl away. The creature trying to kill them had large green eyes, and a bored expression on his face. He was muttering, “Trash,” as he threw fireball after fireball at Chad, who was rapidly weakening. Some of the balls got through, even as Chad twisted to avoid being hit, burning him and drawing blood.
Ichigo canvassed the battle in an instant, as Zangetsu had taught him. Coming up to the side, he hissed, “Tensa Zangetsu!” and loosed an icy blue and black sickle of force at the shorter enemy. The head turned, the wide eyes narrowed, and he drew a sword so fast Ichigo couldn’t track the movement. He slashed down, cutting through Ichigo’s attack like it was butter.
But that was okay, because it gave Chad time to come up strong from the front. His “El Directo!” caught the enemy’s attention back, leaving him open for Ichigo to come at him from the side again. They were starting to wear him down, or at least distract him, when Ishida came out of nowhere, arrows flying thick enough to blanket the area, honing in on the two intruders.
This caused the tall one who’d been fighting Tatsuki to look away from their fight. Unfortunately, Tatsuki was at the end of her strength and collapsed, unable to fight any longer. To Ichigo’s surprise, the tall enemy actually caught her, then tossed her gently over past the first ring of corpses. Then he turned and shot most of the arrows out of the sky with a gun that fired more of those fireballs, only smaller and a lot more of them.
Ichigo caught his eye during the battle. “Why didn’t you kill her?” he panted out, still attacking the shorter, meaner one.
“She fought very well,” the man said in a sleepy voice. “I find no pleasure in killing, and she is a valiant warrior.”
Then a ball of fire nearly took his head off, and Ichigo put his attention back on the green-eyed one, glaring at him for getting too close. He didn’t know how much longer he could fight, even with the taller one doing nothing but protecting himself from incoming arrows, when he heard voices behind him.
A red shield popped over the downed fighters as fire whipped past him. The sleepy enemy shrugged, waved at the fire and extinguished it. The short, mean one stared at the red shield for a moment, then turned on his heel and walked away.
Into the sky.
That he then ripped open with the tip of his finger, showing blackness behind it. He stepped into the blackness and disappeared.
“Guess that’s it, then,” the tall one said, then sighed, turned, and meandered over to follow the other one through the tear in the sky. Pure grief and rage sent Ichigo to send another Getsuga after him, and Ishida sent out one last wave of arrows, but the bastard waved his hand again, disintegrating their attacks.
Ichigo fell to the ground next to Chad, trying to find the energy to check him for injuries, then turning to Tatsuki to find his dad already looking her over.
His dad, dressed like the warrior girl who’d fought the Hollow that rammed into their house months before. His dad, wearing a torn haori over a crumpled kimono and ragged hakama. Carrying a sword. His dad, who obviously knew a hell of a lot more than he ever let on, and had never said a thing.
Then he looked over to see Tatsuki, crying over the corpse of her sweetheart, and decided he didn’t care. There were more important things to worry about.
Chad and Mizuiro were still in the hospital, and funerals were being planned for Orihime and Keigo, as well as the other victims of the attack. Tatsuki and Ichigo sat on the porch outside her house, silent, sharing shock and grief. Ishida leaned against the pillar, lending his own silent support. Other than some still-healing cuts on his fingers from prolonged rapid firing of his bow, he was fine. As was Ichigo. Tatsuki had strained some muscles, sprained one wrist and completely exhausted herself, but otherwise she was okay.
The papers blamed it on a gas explosion. Tatsuki’s mom yelled at her for fighting. Ichigo smarted off to her, drawing her fire and allowing Tatsuki to escape. Which led them to where they now were, sitting on the steps, watching the sun go down and wondering what was next.
“What the…” Ishida stood up and glared across the street.
Ichigo followed his gaze and saw a mishmash of strange fighters in black, with swords… and feathers… and a kid… and a woman who was about to fall out of her top… and a bald guy whose head shone so brightly under the streetlight it left an afterimage.
“Hell?” he finished for Ishida.
Their confusion roused Tatsuki a little from her grief, and she looked over as well.
“What’s that? Cosplay troupe?” She didn’t sound like she cared.
“Shinigami,” Ishida growled.
Oh. Ichigo had heard all about those. They were enemies to the Quincies, mass-murderers who were supposed to kill Hollows but sucked at it, leaving souls to get eaten. He stared at their uniforms.
Son of a bitch. That’s what his dad had been wearing.
“Oh god, I think my dad’s a Shinigami,” he hissed.
Ishida gave him a sympathetic look. “Remind me to tell you about our family histories, sometime, Kurosaki.”
Great. More secrets. More lies of omission. More… fuck.
Spiritual pressure, again. Not as much as they’d gotten the day before but still enough to make Tatsuki fold in half, spur Ishida to pull his bow, and bring Ichigo to his feet and his cleaver to his hand.
Then more human-like Hollows appeared, and the Shinigami split off to fight them.
All except one. A big, crazy looking guy with part of a jawbone stuck to his face and bright blue hair came tearing up to them like a cat who’d just seen catnip.
“You! Yes, you! Fight me!” He was practically bouncing on his toes. His eyes were literally sparkling.
Ichigo didn’t know who he was talking to. “Me?”
“Or me?” Ishida cocked an arrow practically under the blue guy’s nose.
“Fuck off and die,” Tatsuki spat, dully.
The man-shaped Hollow froze, then bent over and looked closely at her face. “Despair, agony, grief, nah, you wouldn’t be any fun right now. Maybe later when your head’s screwed on straight.” He shot back just enough to not get his nose pierced by Ishida’s arrow and pulled his sword. “You two!! I’m Grimmjow Jaegerjaquez, and I’m here to kill you!”
Fury bubbled up, at everyone they’d just lost, at the lies his father told with his silence, at the fool who fought to the death for fun. His cleaver led his attack and he was moving before he made the decision to do so.
The battle that followed destroyed most of the neighborhood. People were running from the collapsing houses like Godzilla was on their trail, and it was a wonder no one died in the evacuation. Grimmjow looked like a porcupine, he had so many Quincy arrows sticking out of him, along with a major gash down his torso from Ichigo’s cleaver and a chip out of his jawbone that somehow made him stagger.
He was still winning.
Then the sky opened up again, and a dark-skinned man with a scarf around his neck and opaque glasses walked out of the crack in the sky.
“You are disobeying orders, Grimmjow. Aizen-sama is very displeased.”
He had his sword out, flashing toward Grimmjow’s arm, when the last of Ishida’s arrows landed. One of them punctured the newcomer’s wrist, and he dropped his hold on Grimmjow to turn toward Ishida, roaring in anger. Ichigo felt the power rolling off him and acted, once more, on instinct.
One thrust, through the spine and up to the base of the skull, then a twist and a pull. The threat to Ishida was neutralized.
Served the moron right for interrupting a fight like that.
Grimmjow licked a bit of the blood away where it splashed across his face, then grimaced.
“Ick. Tastes flat.” He grinned at Ichigo, then grabbed the body off the ground and nodded. “Thanks for that. I hate growing arms back.”
Then he flashed away to the crack in the sky. By then, the other fights looked like they were over. Most of the houses were flattened. The other Hollows were dead, and some of the Shinigami were wounded.
Tatsuki was still sitting on the porch, all that remained of her house.
Ichigo waved Ishida off home, then brought Tatsuki back to his house and put out a futon on the floor of his bedroom for her. Then he went looking for his dad. He found him standing at the sink, staring through the window of the kitchen, at the dark sky. He had a mostly-empty glass in his hand, and a mostly-empty bottle of shōchū on the counter next to him.
“Who are you, dad?” Ichigo asked softly.
His dad sighed, then emptied his glass. Filled it again. Stared out at the night, and told him where he came from. What his mother had been, and what he once had been, and was very slowly becoming again. What he thought Ichigo was. That he was part Quincy, and part Shinigami, and even part Hollow, and overall, human. That war was coming, and he had a part to play in it. That he needed to be strong, because in the end, he, Ichigo, would be carrying the weight of three worlds on his shoulders.
Silence finally fell. His dad still didn’t look at him.
Ichigo turned and left the room.
They were expecting him to be their savior, somehow, these ghost warriors he’d never met, who had let his mother die and killed his mother’s people? Who had exiled his father and, given their track record, would probably try to kill him the minute his usefulness was up?
Not going to happen.
Screens captured all the action that night and fed it to the monitors of the 12th division of the Gotei 13, under the command of a soul who would put Eduard Wirths to shame in his zeal for experimentation on those he considered less than human, which was everyone other than himself. Mayuri Kurotsuchi watched the two strange Quincies take on the large blue Espada and actually wriggled in his seat.
He must have them.
The last Quincy he got to investigate was so old and dried up he hadn’t been much good at all. But these specimens were young, viable, and fascinating. One was a traditional weapon-wielder, and the other was some sort of mutation. He could discover so much!
He just had to bring them in.
“Nemu! Get in here, you useless bitch! We are going on a mission!”
Deep in the heart of a singular building in Hueco Mundo, a tall, razor-slender Espada blew strands of pink hair out of his face and peered at the footage he’d obtained from the recent foray Ulquiorra and Starrk took to the Living World. The Fullbringer boy and girl were rather ordinary, and the two Shinigami were out of his league, but the two Quincy boys were incredibly promising specimens.
From the look of it, they trained together, as their tactics were sound when dealing with an overpowering opponent. They were both quite young, but the variances were more interesting than the similarities. One was a standard Quincy, if a little stronger than expected for his age. The other was some kind of hybrid, if he was reading his reiatsu numbers correctly, and he always did.
The hybrid not only showed Quincy traits, but Shinigami, and Hollow as well! Oh, exciting. He had to have them. One for the test subject, and one for control.
He opened a channel to Aizen-sama, but he was busy squishing Grimmjow nearly to paste as punishment for getting all his Fracción and that creeper Tōsen killed on an unsanctioned attack on the world of the Living. Aizen-same needed as many souls as he could get from Karakura, so he certainly didn’t want anyone kicking over the anthill and setting the Shinigami on alert.
Oh, well, too late for that.
Szayel Aporro Granz grinned, yellow eyes narrowing behind bone spectacles. While everyone was distracted… he would just sneak down and gather himself a couple unique specimens. Nobody would notice. He’d be back in no time at all.
Humming a cheery tune, he slurped down one of his Fracción for a little extra energy – the screams were almost as refreshing as the protein, kicked in his Sonído and headed out of the reach of the cameras around Las Noches.
Once out of sight, he opened a garganta and headed off to retrieve his lab rats.
Of course, timing is everything. Two megalomaniacal mad scientists with a taste for obscure humans hit the Living World the same night, and instead of finding their prey, found one another.
The ensuing destruction took out a quarter of Karakura town. The national news outlets blamed it on an earthquake.
“What is the meaning of this?” thundered Sou-Taicho Yamamoto to the assembled captains of the Gotei 13, minus nearly half of them.
Aizen was away without leave, and it shocked everyone when Lieutenant Hinamori steeled herself to touch her ‘sleeping’ captain on the shoulder only to have his illusory body shatter under her hand like glass. She was under sedation in the 4th until they could get her hysteria under control.
This display of an advanced illusion technique put Aizen under immediate suspicion of treason. Why else would he do such a thing?
Of course, he could have just sneaked out to visit a lover, or perform unsanctioned experiments on unsuspecting souls in the Rukon, or get an ice cream cone. This being Yamamoto, the first and only reason to spring to mind was treason.
He should probably be checked for paranoia. Anyway, other captains were also missing.
Eyewitness reports from the recent battle in Karakura Town had placed Tōsen on site, and reported that not only did he appear to be working with the enemy Espada, he had targeted a human and been killed by another human – then taken by the Espada back to Hueco Mundo!
Such a shameful death made it abundantly clear that Tōsen was certainly a traitor. Perhaps he was in league with Aizen, or even responsible for his disappearance?
Byakuya Kuchiki was on compassionate leave to mourn his sister… and deal with clan issues… and get his head together. His Lieutenant, while powerful, was not mature enough to handle this assignment, so the 6th division would not be deployed.
They had no idea how far the treason spread, so Suì-Fēng would be needed in Soul Society, commanding her Onmitsukidō to spread through the Seireitei and ensure no invaders got through their defenses. He sent her off with her orders.
The immediate cause of their meeting was the activities of the absent Kurotsuchi, and his lieutenant, as well. Massive outbursts of reiatsu were warping Karakura town, and reports from Captain Hitsugaya – who wasn’t at the meeting either, but at least he had an excuse! – stated that both Kurotsuchis were engaging in a battle royal with at least one Espada that was causing massive damage to the town.
He never should have let Urahara pull that malignant waste of a soul from the Maggot’s Nest.
The fight was still going on.
Yamamoto growled under his breath and smacked his cane into the floor twice. The call to combat rolled out. “Captains and Lieutenants of the Third, Seventh, Eighth, Eleventh and Thirteenth squads! Join the Captain and Lieutenant of the Tenth and their deployed Shinigami over Karakura Town! Bring all your might to bear to kill the Arrancar intruders! Stop this war NOW!”
Aizen felt it the moment his illusion broke. Why would Momo disturb him? He reached out lazily with a tendril of power and brought up his viewing screens, floating in the air in front of his throne.
Then he nearly swallowed his tongue, thankful for the fact that the room was empty so his devoted followers didn’t see him practically jolt out of his chair.
He was distracted before he could even see what was going on in the Gotei 13 by the complete clusterfuck that was happening in the Living World. First Grimmjow, now this. What the HELL was Szayel doing?
Well, it was obvious what he was doing – he was going at it hammer and tongs with the despicable captain of the 12th. But WHY? He was going to completely trash Karakura and set Aizen’s plans back an unacceptable amount! Damnit, he NEEDED those souls!
He tore his eyes away from the catastrophe to see a stream of top-level Shinigami running from the 1st division toward the Senkaimon. No, no, no, no, shit!
Yes, they were coming through the gate. Directly to Karakura. NO.
He couldn’t wait this out. There was too much damage being caused, and it would only get worse. No, he had to do it now. Better to end it quickly and reap what he could before he lost it all.
Carefully calming the snarl out of his voice, he sent out the command. “All Espada and Fracción, report to the throne room immediately!”
It took too long, but that might have been subjective. Once they’d assembled, he ordered Starrk, Hallibel, Ulquiorra, Grimmjow, Nnoitra, Aaroniero, and Zommari, with their associated Fracción – those few that still had them – to follow him through a series of garganta to the Living World. He left Yammy behind to guard the fort, and Barragan because he was as much a threat to the other Espada as he was to the Shinigami.
He did take Barragan’s Fracción, though, leaving the old man bitching behind him. That would show the ex-King just how little the real King appreciated challenges to his power.
As the Senkaimon opened to pour forth Shinigami, four garganta opened and discharged Espada. The destruction of Karakura began.
“This is fucked up,” Hiyori whispered, staring at the hell happening above their heads.
Then she saw Aizen. She looked up and over at Shinji. He nodded back down at her. Much as they hated the Gotei 13 for turning on them, they hated Aizen the most, for turning them into what they now were. They would have their revenge.
The Visored joined the fight.
Ishida called him for help. His dad’s hospital was in danger. Not that Ichigo needed much of a head’s up, given the way his dad abruptly exited his fake body, hefted his sword, and flew through the ceiling. Literally. He grabbed his sisters, pushed them into their room, told them not to leave or they could get killed, then told them he loved them. He activated the defenses and ran outside, then leapt into the air, cleaver coming to his hand.
Combat was breaking out all over the skies above Karakura. The number of Shinigami had tripled, and there were more human-like Hollows as well, although most of them looked more like experiments from a genetics lab than humans. Ishida was fighting off a guy who looked kind of like an eagle on the roof of his father’s hospital, and others were circling, ready to attack. Ichigo practically teleported to his side.
Chad was in that hospital.
So was Mizuiro. And Ishida’s dad. And a bunch of sick people.
“We have to draw them away!” he yelled.
Ishida nodded, and they dove into a pincing maneuver, herding the hostiles away from the hospital and over toward the river. Most of the businesses were closed now, and there weren’t many homes, so hopefully there would be fewer casualties on the ground.
As they moved, they saw a huge Shinigami with an eyepatch, a little pink-haired girl bouncing around on his shoulder, screaming with laughter as he fought an incredibly tall Hollow with a collar that looked like a spoon and at least six arms.
“Freaky,” Ishida commented as he panted at his shoulder. Ichigo nodded agreement then moved in to take out a wounded Hollow, watching him dissolve only for a moment before diving back into the fight.
Only he wasn’t quite sure WHO to fight.
Pulling back, he put a hand on Ishida’s arm and drew him away from the chaos. “I vote we protect the hospital and let the rest of them kill each other off.”
Ishida looked at the insanity whirling around them, and agreed.
From there, the rest of the night mainly consisted of killing anyone who got too close to the hospital and trying to stay out of the fray. Most of it was moving too quickly to follow, but moments stood out.
A Shinigami with a pink kimono tossed over his shoulders took out a strange pumpkin-shaped hollow covered in eyeballs with a move that looked like it came from a children’s game, only with devastating results. Not far from him, a Shinigami with long white hair used two swords tied together to bounce attacks back at the attackers, splitting one strange Hollow with a tube for a head into several pieces. That was messy.
A very tall man with flowing blond hair, who was fighting the Hollows but not dressed as a Shinigami, a large guy with pink hair who was using spells, and another guy in a track suit with his hair trimmed like a star, took on three female Hollows and nearly got killed by them. They were joined by the very short kid-Shinigami and the woman with her breasts hanging out, and that battle went on for quite a while before the Shinigami and their allies won.
The bald Shinigami and the one with feathers on his – her? – face teamed up with a big boxer with white hair and an incredibly fast and flexible girl with green hair to take on a female hollow wearing her shirt over her face instead of her chest. She pulled some moves with water that nearly drowned the whole town, so Ichigo was happy to see they brought her down pretty quickly.
Finally, the huge Shinigami with the spiky hair hacked the last of the multi-armed Hollow’s arms off, and cut him clear through the torso, laughing like a nutcase the entire time. The little girl bounced around cheering, until a smaller blond Hollow, also wearing an eye patch – what was that, the pirate fight? – put his sword through her head. Ichigo winced. The spiky haired captain exploded toward the small blond Hollow, and literally crushed him to death. Before he could pick up the little girl’s body, a Hollow that looked like a combination of loli and scorpion caught him in the nape of the neck with her stinger. When she pulled it out, she ripped his head off.
Before she got very far, a short brunette Shinigami in glasses sliced her in two.
A Hollow that looked like a really bad caricature of a drag queen came after the brunette, and was taken out by a girl in a sailor suit and a tall guy in a vest and jeans with short blond hair and piano key teeth… who was fighting upside down. The Shinigami looked startled. The blond laughed and kept fighting, alongside a short girl with blonde pigtails and a snaggletooth. Seriously.
The carnage went on.
At that moment, Ichigo caught sight of a couple familiar faces. The tall Hollow Tatsuki fought was standing a little way off from the fight, watching, as they were. A young girl with bright green hair was jumping around at his side, but he put a hand on her helmet and she eventually calmed down. As they watched, he peered down at the humans dying in droves on the ground and shook his head. Then he put his hand up. Cracked. The. Sky.
Ichigo would never get over how incredibly weird that was.
And left the field of battle.
Apparently he didn’t think it was worth it. He didn’t seem to like to fight very much. Ichigo could relate.
The second familiar face was the bastard with the green streaks on his face who’d nearly killed Chad. He casually put a hand through the chest of a Shinigami in sunglasses, then shook his hand free like he was throwing away trash. A roar shook the skies, and… was that a giant FOX? Um, yeah, a giant fox came after him. He took the giant fox down like it was standing still.
Then a Shinigami with blond hair falling in his face swooped in and put his hand over the deep wound in the fox’s chest, channeling some kind of green energy into it. The Hollow looked like he was going to kill that guy, too, but a tall Shinigami with silver hair appeared between them. They talked for a moment, and he must have talked the Hollow out of it or something, because he stuck his bloody hand in his pocket and wandered away.
So very weird.
The Shinigami were winning the fight when yet another Shinigami came out of the sky. Not from doors, like the other Shinigami, but from a crack, like the Hollows. No wonder Ichigo couldn’t figure out who was fighting whom.
The new guy looked like some kind of fashion model, complete with an artful strand of hair falling in his face and a languid pose. Ichigo instinctively wanted to punch his face in. Before he could enter the battle, though, the last of the Hollows that were still fighting fell, dead or seriously wounded. That didn’t include the mean bastard with the green streaks on his face, who was now hanging around the blond healer, staring at him in fascination. Or Grimmjow, who Ichigo hadn’t seen since very early in the mêlée.
The silver-haired Shinigami went to stand next to the newcomer, and several of the other Shinigami came to attack them.
The short Shinigami boy with the white hair, the busty redhead, the guy in the pink kimono, the guy with the long white hair, and most of the people who Ichigo couldn’t tell what they were – led by the upside-down guy with the piano grin – surrounded the model and the silver-haired Shinigami. Spells were flying through the air, swords of all shapes were flashing, and it was a wonder they didn’t all kill each other by accident in all the confusion.
The model was smirking like he knew something none of the rest of them did, when the silver-haired Shinigami, with a smile that looked a lot like a snake, stabbed him in the side.
All the way through his body.
Then ran like hell, so fast he left an afterimage, past the gathered Shinigami and allies, who were staring at him like they’d never seen him before.
While they were all gawking like idiots, Ishida took his shot. Literally nobody but his target saw it, because they were all looking at the snaky silver-haired guy, but they turned around when the model let out a scream.
The arrow had gone right between his eyes into his skull, stuck there, and fell into his body, falling back into reishi as it did. The model started to dissolve, head first, and as he did, it seemed like the world had stopped. The silence was all encompassing.
“So, uh, you wanna fight? Or maybe, go on a date?”
Maybe not ALL encompassing. The big blue Hollow was cuddled up to Tatsuki, looking at her with bright hopeful blue eyes.
She smacked him on the head, and he whimpered as he slunk out of sight.
That broke up the tableau, and everything descended back into chaos, but this time people were just yelling at each other, not trying to kill each other.
Ichigo decided he’d seen enough. The hospital was safe, his dad would need a hand at the clinic, and there was a mountain of clean-up to do.
“Call me if you need me,” he told Ishida, then he peeled off to go home as Ishida went down to enter the hospital. No doubt his father could use a hand, too.
They were trash, Ulquiorra knew, but they were intriguing trash. For some reason, they sacrificed for one another. They fought for one another, even those they felt had betrayed them, if the half-Hollows screaming at the Shinigami were any indication. He felt something stir inside him, where it had been dead for as long as he could remember.
He didn’t understand.
He had to find out more.
When all the yelling was over, he followed the half-Hollows to the broken building they called home. They entered, but he encountered a ward. It was the work of a moment to push through.
In seconds, he was surrounded by triumphant, tired, stressed, adrenalized half-Hollows.
“What is this trust you have for one another? What is this heart you cannot see, that drives you to do such things?” he asked quietly. “Can you teach me?”
They stared at him in complete silence.
Suddenly, a female wearing goggles on her head squealed, “Kawaii!” and attacked him with her arms, in a futile attempt to squeeze him to death. The constriction merely made it difficult to breathe. He didn’t kill her immediately because he wanted to see what the rest of them would do.
The large male pulled her off and scolded her. The small female with the yellow hair threatened him with her footwear. The tall male with the short yellow hair leaned over to peer deeply into his eyes.
“You’re adorable. I’ll keep you.”
Thus was the beginning of Ulquiorra’s life as the feral pet of the Visored.
He confused the hell out of the Shinigami when they relocated to the Seireitei.
Gin expected to be questioned. They’d never trusted him, but his actions branded him a hero, plus they were down a hell of a lot of captains and they needed him. So they wouldn’t push him too hard.
He’d give them a good story, Yamamoto would pretend to buy it, and things would go back to the status quo. At least as long as Byakuya-hime was so out of it, and he was on-site, he could orchestrate the cover-up for his part in Aizen’s crimes. He’d been skating over the abyss for decades. He would skate through this as well.
As soon as Rangiku finished kissing him.
So, not for a long time, he suspected.
“I guess we’re going home, then,” Urahara sighed, staring up through the shield he’d raised over his Shōten.
“Don’t you want to?” Tessai asked as he held up his end of a kidō barrier he’d put up to try to save as many people as he could from being killed by the shit-ton of reiatsu being thrown around.
“I guess. They’ll probably get around to granting clemency for the crimes none of us actually committed, once they finally get off their butts and investigate. And I suppose someone has to go back to Soul Society and negotiate on behalf of the Visored. And the Quincy, now that some are active in the area. And Ichigo-kun, whatever he is, to pave the way for whenever he takes up the family mantle. Plus Isshin, since he outed himself in the battle, and it’s just all going to come out now, isn’t it?” he moaned, heading back into the house for migraine medicine.
Nobody could see Tessai smiling beneath his moustache, but he was.
Grimmjow crept out of the rubble and watched the cute, feisty human girl who smelled a little like a Hollow and punched hard enough he actually felt it. Not now, but eventually, she would be his.
He’d keep bugging her until she said yes. He was very good at being irritating.
Purr rumbling through his chest, he settled in and watched his prey.
Several weeks after the Karakura Disaster, Jūshirō Ukitake finished up the last of the paperwork for the latest round of negotiations and handed them to Kisuke for his perusal and signature. The town had been overrun with Plus souls after the battle, and as his division was in charge of this area, his people had been stretched to the limit hunting all the Hollows attracted to the feast and performing konsō on all the souls who needed it.
But they’d finally caught up, and he could afford a night off. He would take advantage of the gigai Kisuke so generously offered. Smiling and tucking away the sheaf of papers to be returned to the 1st division later, he waved goodbye to his host and wandered out to see how the humans were getting along in the wake of their great losses.
It was springtime, and the day was perfect, the scent of flowers filling the air, the sun gentle on his skin. He carefully negotiated a path through the crowds, his heart encouraged by the chatter and laughter of the humans he passed. Elderly couples walked hand in hand, steps matching, as did younger lovers, wandering, lost in one another. Children ran and played. Businessmen and women bustled on their way, and teens gathered at sweet shops and restaurants, enjoying the Sunday free from school.
As he drew closer to the river, he heard a mix of koto and tsutsumi drums, and he followed the sound. A small stage had been set up and a crowd of people gathered around, watching the musicians play, and a young man dance.
For a moment, he stumbled. Was it Kaien? Perhaps born again in the Living realm?
But no. This young man superficially resembled his late lieutenant a great deal, but there were differences. He stilled and watched the dancer closely.
Jūshirō was enchanted. The boy, as he was only a teenager, moved as if he were made of water. He was dressed in green and black, holding a fan that glinted with the outline of a bronze tiger on it. His face was simply beautiful, clean lines, younger and somehow purer than Kaien’s had been, with large amber eyes, beneath a head of red-gold hair that caught the eye and held it. As lovely as he no doubt was, however, it was the strength and grace of his movements that stopped Jūshirō in his tracks.
It had been a very long time since he had been privileged to witness such a dance, and even then, the performer had not shown the mastery this young human did. The motions of his hands, the placement of his limbs, the expressions of his entire body… the fan moved as if it were a part of him, and he showed not a trace of hesitation. He told a story of pain and strife, of tears and triumph, of hope and closure. By the time he ended, kneeling over his folded fan, completely still, Jūshirō had tears in his eyes.
He listened, and caught the dancer’s name… Ichigo Kurosaki. Smiling, he walked back along the riverbank, enjoying the air as evening fell, thinking on what he’d seen. To add to the impact of the boy’s presence… he was brimming with reiryoku. Even had he not been such a lovely creature, it would have been his duty to watch over him. His attributes simply ensured that duty would be a pleasure.